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Top of the Class

Updike’s range is encyclopedic, but he has a terrain all his own: the overlapping generations of writers, primarily novelists, who became internationally prominent either in the late Thirties or, more often, after the Second World War—Céline, Borges, Güunter Grass, Nabokov, Muriel Spark, Beckett, Raymond Queneau, Lévi-Strauss, Iris Murdoch, Henry Green, Saul Bellow, Italo Calvino, and others. Updike admires some of these writers a lot, and, in many cases, even in the cases of those he is skeptical of, his running descriptions of the range of their talent and their impact are probably as lively and shrewd as any American critic has produced. But he makes so many delicately shaded, overlapping positive and negative remarks in his analyses of them, and of the older and more recent authors he covers, that virtually everyone comes out with the same weight and consistency. Writing in praise of, say, Calvino’s Invisible Cities, or Nabokov’s career, or the letters of Franz Kafka, he wants us to be amazed, or reverent. There is something so glazed and preordained about these pieces, though—they sound so much as if they’re official wrap-ups—that, shortly after having read them, you find it difficult to remember what, exactly, he said.

There is more grit to his writing when he is ambivalent, and he often reviews books that demand a mixed notice: novels by novelists who, in his opinion and by general consent, have done their freshest writing long before; belated translations of, or posthumous collections of previously unpublished work by, esteemed writers. And he’s peerless when, say, reevaluating Colette or Andrei Bely’s Petersburg, or when, analyzing recent Bellow, Grass, Margaret Drabble, Anne Tyler, or Kurt Vonnegut, he makes it clear that the work is the product of a distinguished mind, or has powerful moments, and yet doesn’t tie together as a whole (or when the situation is reversed).

His separate reviews of Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift and The Dean’s December and of each of four Anne Tyler novels are amazing. Though he is dissatisfied somehow with what they’ve done, he sinks into their novels, recasting and improving them as he goes along. Some of their material is set in the past, but they both write, to a degree, as social historians of the present, and Updike’s reviews, which tie together in the reader’s mind, form a kind of composite three-author portrait of life in America from the mid-Seventies to the early-Eighties. The portrait isn’t really adventurous. Updike shows Bellow’s material as being too sour and inactive, too much about the loneliness of genius, and Tyler’s as being a shade musty and evanescent. Updike seems to see himself in their books, though.

Yet even when he is ambivalent, Updike often doesn’t dig deeply into what bothers him, and his reluctance can be infuriating, because he isn’t timid. And his mind seems more pliant, more able to see into the telltale crevices of things, than, say, Edmund Wilson’s or Alfred Kazin’s. He always wants to convey what the texture of someone’s prose is like, and he isn’t afraid of saying that an aspect of a prominent sociologist’s or historian’s thought is vapid. He’s aware of shortcomings in, say, Bruno Bettelheim’s psychoanalytic interpretation of fairy tales, The Uses of Enchantment; he tells us that Bettelheim’s “enchanting presumption of life as a potentially successful adventure may be itself something of a fairy tale.” But he doesn’t go beyond that perception, which would seem the opening gun of a real analysis of the issues. Wanting primarily to congratulate Bettelheim on his own terms, Updike turns him into a benevolent friend of the family.

Updike’s analyses of Roland Barthes are congratulatory, too, and they also shortchange the subject. Updike is skeptical of the French essayist’s work at first, and he goes furthest into his mixed emotions when he says, of The Pleasure of the Text, “One cannot help but feel that the authors so whimsically cherished are being condescended to and impudently pillaged.” In other reviews over the years, Updike becomes increasingly an admirer, but less concrete; especially in his most recent, 1980, piece, he isn’t evaluating Barthes for us so much as showing us that he can talk Barthes’s language. The effect is of two mandarins overheard at court. In these and other reviews, as in many of his nonliterary essays, grouped in a section called “Persons and Places,” a reader may feel that Updike has put away his dissatisfied self, and that he wants to talk with the voice of an insider, or of a genial, wry, community-minded appreciator, a voice from beyond the fray.


One of the most striking lines in Hugging the Shore comes from a review of The Dean’s December: “Bellow believes in the soul; this is one of his links with the ancients, with the great books.” The line makes sense about Bellow and about Updike, too. There is an extra, intangible dimension in all his work, though it may be seen most purely in his short stories. Talking about R.K. Narayan, he says, “a short story, like the flare of a match, brings human faces out of darkness, and reveals depths beyond statistics.” Updike’s stories, both the naturalistic ones and the sermonlike monologues, have that flare. Where they take us, though, is into the darkness. In Updike’s finest moments, we feel the way we do when, in the country, especially in the fall and winter, after being indoors all evening, we go outside and the night sky is unexpectedly clear, starry, and endless—and we see both the beauty of the moment and, in a good way, the smallness of our concerns.

Reading a good amount of Updike’s fiction produces the feeling that he is less a storyteller by temperament than a journal keeper. It is a person’s illuminating or dispiriting moments that he most wants to re-create, and many of his best stories have the confessional, blurting-out drive of a powerful journal entry. He resembles some journal keepers, too, in that he seems to continually describe and analyze those moments because, doing it, he can put off settling some other, larger issue—an issue he knows he will never settle. Updike always asks the right questions, in his reviews as much as in his fiction; yet, perhaps because he feels he cannot bring certain problems to a head, or doesn’t want to, he comes up with answers too quickly.

If readers feel personally close to him, it may be because he seems to be addressing us directly, asking us to witness something for him and thereby give him, for the moment, some relief. In his novels especially, his details are photographically precise, but they’re seethrough details—they seem worked up, like evidence. The real point is almost always one man’s psychic and spiritual dilemma, and we invariably feel that Updike himself is that man. That his stories seem fuller than his novels may be due to the fact that he puts fewer documentary details in his stories—he goes straight for the dilemma.

His preoccupation with himself, though—his keeping himself the biggest figure in his work—has come at a cost: Updike, in his person, has a glamour and an expansiveness that his writing does not. As he has grown older—he is fifty-one—his face has become weathered and massive, and his big frame has filled out. In a documentary shown on TV in July, “What Makes Rabbit Run?” his eyes have the animation, and he moves with the slightly awkward assurance, of a boyish national hero, and, in a way, he is one. He is the spruce young conqueror of our literary life even more now than he was, say, fifteen years ago. Seemingly more prolific than ever, as a novelist, critic, short-story writer, and poet, he personifies artistic energy. Yet his work has become grayer. He has always wanted to describe the muffled and unstated connections between people—how people unconsciously hurt, or draw strength from, each other. In his earlier work, though, particularly in the stories about his parents and grandparents and his home town, the remembered details seemed to come to him faster than he had time to organize them, and his scenes were crowded and brimming. His themes have not changed, but, increasingly now, the details seem arbitrary, and there’s something schematic in the way he shows those muffled connections.

And, preoccupied with his own continually unfinished business, he doesn’t give himself, in his work, to other people. His writing lacks a hero—or a heroine. There is a near-hero: a character whom we take to be the author’s father. (He appears, with a different name each time, in many of the early stories and in the novel The Centaur, where he’s a high school math teacher.) He’s harried, and often maddeningly gullible and self-deprecatory, but, tall and big-boned, he is kind, and a fighter, too. He isn’t someone, though, that the reader fantasizes becoming. Nor do we dream of Updike’s narrator and/or central character, the man who, whether he’s called Orson, or Rob, or John, or Stanley—or Henry Bech, or Richard Maple, the husband in Too Far To Go, or Félix Ellelloû, the central figure in The Coup—we feel is Updike himself. Seen as a boy, an adolescent, a college kid, a young married man, a father, an adulterer, a lover, or a divorced man, he casts a now appreciating, now apprehensive eye at the world; he’s omniscient. At the end, though, he slips out from making a decision about what he has seen and felt. Sometimes a decision has been made for him: Bech finds himself divorced, and is last seen wandering at a fashionable but wearisome New York party; Ellelloû is forced out of the presidency of Kush by a bloodless palace coup, and retires, with his family, to the French Riviera. Yet these, and Updike’s other, men are never really damaged. They are superior, expectant, worried, a little cynical, and a little lost at the beginning, and they haven’t changed much by the end.

They ought to be big; they’re vain, and they preside, uneasily, over their worlds—what happens to the other characters never truly matters. Yet they think of themselves as nothings, and so do we. Women fall for them and there is always a sexual note in the air, but the reader remembers them less as sexy than as men who always have sex on their minds. And while they have jobs, or work at something, they appear to be jobless; they’re waiting for some big thing to happen. We feel we’re supposed to embrace them, because they present themselves to us as sheepish and stricken; but we aren’t given anything to embrace them for.

Updike’s women often seem stronger than his men, yet their strength is seen only in relation to weak men. What’s rock-like about his women is negative things—their misplaced heavy enthusiasm, their obliviousness—that the protagonist thinks about with more anger than he admits to himself. Though Updike’s women are more than cutouts, it’s hard to imagine what they think about when they are offstage; they rarely seem to have independent minds. The one who does—she appears, under different names, in The Centaur, the novel Of the Farm, and in many stories—is always recognizably his mother. With her wary, potentially volatile, yet always lidded power, this character has a real presence. But maybe because we’re never made to like her, we believe that she is a bigger—a more frightening and wracked—person than Updike shows. And Updike’s small children and adolescents, though they say charming and authentically kidlike things, and are alive on the page, are faceless in memory.

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